Writing setting: ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Writing setting: ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

A picture of Holi Festival in India - bringing setting to life.While many readers may think first of plot and characters as central elements of a novel, setting can also be a powerful part of what makes a book successful. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is one example of a book with a memorable setting that is inextricable from its other elements, and its author, Deborah Moggach, uses a number of techniques to make that setting come alive for her readers.

Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things came out in 2004, but it was in 2012 that the popular film of the book, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, was released. The book was then reissued in many markets with the film’s title.

Setting is an integral part of many stories. In some cases, it is one of the dominant elements. Critics will sometimes talk about the setting of a novel as similar to and as influential as any character. In her novel, Deborah Moggach’s Indian setting is not just important to the novel’s theme and plot; it is a fully realised element that is crucial in making The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a satisfying read.

The book tells the story of a group of British men and women in their 60s and 70s who go to live in a retirement home in Bangalore, India. In effect, their care is “outsourced” just as so many Western companies have outsourced many of their jobs to India as well. With a range of personalities, peculiarities and personal challenges, the characters navigate aging along with a brand new culture with varying degrees of success. Some, like the lecherous Norman or the bigoted Muriel, are downright unpleasant while others are likeable if flawed. Some characters find love and fulfilment; some choose to go home. All of them are changed in some way by the new setting in which they find themselves.

In writing about a setting that will be unfamiliar to many readers or a setting that readers may have preconceived notions about, an author has a lot of work to do. It’s necessary to bring the setting alive without dumping too much information on the reader at once. The author also has to make the setting real. This can be a challenge for authors who are writing about a place that readers may imagine in a way that is different from the real place. Just as some crime writers complain that the speed at which forensic results are obtained in TV crime shows cause readers to think their painstakingly-researched books are inaccurate when the opposite is true, an author writing about a location that occupies as big a place in the imagination of many readers as India has to contend with balancing the version of India that the reader carries in their head with the real place.

Moggach succeeds at bringing her setting alive in the face of these challenges.

What is setting?

It may seem obvious to say that setting is the place where a story happens, but setting has a number of other elements besides simply being a description of the city or the room where a scene from the story is occurring. Other elements of setting include time, the weather, geography and more. Culture is another element of setting, but when the culture is identical to the reader’s culture, this is often an invisible aspect and one that does not need further explication by the author. In the case of a book like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, outside of broad and often inaccurate impressions, the details of Indian culture are unfamiliar to many of the readers, and therefore, accurately describing the culture is important to evoking the setting.

Avoiding romance

Many people have preconceptions about India, and they might imagine it as an exotic, intriguing place. Some readers might even picture an India that has not really existed since the 19th century. Others may imagine it in a negative light; they may associate it with poverty and crime. Still others may have few associations with India outside of being able to name their favourite curry at the local Indian restaurant. In fact, India, like most countries, has many facets. It is an ancient and complex culture, and today, the country is a unique mix of the old and the contemporary.

Certainly, India is intriguing, but in her novel, Moggach takes care to write about a real place, not the romanticised India of imagination. One of the more significant aspects of Moggach’s Indian is its modernity. By setting her novel in Bangalore, she places her characters amid high-rises, modern offices and call centres, yet the more traditional India still exists alongside these. This contrast demonstrates some of the richness of the culture to the reader as India modernizes while retaining its uniqueness.

Drawing on personal experience

A hotel in India - a novel settingThe internet has made researching a place far easier than it ever used to be. Along with blogs and photos and YouTube videos, there is Google map’s street view that ensures you can even take a virtual stroll around cities halfway around the world. However, although authors have always found a way to write compellingly about places they have never visited, there is no substitute for visiting a place yourself. For her Indian setting, Moggach drew in part on the time she spent living in Pakistan in the 1970s. While Pakistan is not India, it is still part of the Indian subcontinent and a culture that shares similarities with India. Certain details about dress, food and customs as well as sensory details helped inform Moggach’s Indian setting.

Furthermore, living two years as an expatriate on the Indian subcontinent gave Moggach insight into how her characters might feel as foreigners in a similar setting. One important aspect of setting to keep in mind is what the character’s relationship to that setting is. A character who has lived in a place their entire life is going to notice different things about a setting than a visitor, and the India Moggach would evoke through the eyes of a person born and raised in Bangalore would not be the same as India experienced by her expat main characters. Drawing on her own past experiences and the feelings evoked by encountering such a different culture and using that to shade her characters’ perceptions makes the setting come alive for readers.

Creating contrasts

Moggach’s choice of setting and characters gives her the opportunity to create two different sets of contrasts that bring out the setting. One of those contrasts is between the expectations of her characters—and her readers—and the reality of Bangalore and the guest house where the characters live. The other is the contrast between the British culture that the characters import along with them and the Indian culture they are now living in. By highlighting these contrasts, Moggach draws attention to the differences in ways that enrich the reader’s sense of the setting.

Specific detail

Choosing the right details is essential for evoking an unfamiliar setting successfully. These may include sensory details or details about character and customs. Among other things, Moggach’s novel is a comedy of manners, and understanding the intricacies of Indian culture and the difficulties that would create for her British retirees is crucial for the success of this aspect.

Moggach’s book is full of details that bring India to life. There is boiled buffalo milk at breakfast and a high-caste Indian man who declares the shadow of a lower-caste man unclean. There is also the gap between how the characters imagine India and the reality of the place; this is not the country of the British Empire but a thriving independent nation in its own right. Writing setting in a way that is real and visceral, Moggach creates a place that is vividly alive for her readers.

A child holds an old person's hand illustrating old people in novelsHow Western culture deals with – or fails to deal with – the elderly is one of the central themes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and by having families “outsource” aging relatives to India, Moggach makes use of a metaphor that would not have the same impact in a different setting. However, in order to make that metaphor work, it is necessary that she creates a believable setting. By avoiding an overly romanticised or exotic view of the country, drawing on personal experience, showing the setting through the eyes of the characters, creating contrast between her characters and the setting and using specific detail, Moggach successfully evokes a fascinating place and creates interplay between the setting and those who are outsiders to it.


What is one approach Deborah Moggach used in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that made India seem particularly vivid for you?


Images from here, here and here.

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